By Anita Felicelli
One weekday afternoon, a woman hands me slices of pepperoni pizza and asks me if I am my daughter’s nanny. She frowns at me and at the baby in the stroller, so the question seems hostile rather than innocent. We are at a Mountain Mike’s Pizza in Palo Alto, walking distance from my house. “No, I’m her mother,” I answer, paying quickly and scarfing down the pizza so I can get out of the restaurant.
I am accustomed to people of all different races and cultures cooing when they see my daughter or asking how old she is, but I am also growing familiar with the questions. “Are you the nanny?” or “Is she yours?” I get these questions from strangers at the airport and local restaurants, and from unfamiliar staff at the pediatrician’s office. While I remain slightly offended by the questions, I have to admit that within a few days of giving birth, even I thought, Holy smokes! Are you mine? I was struck by how markedly different she looks from Steven and me, and briefly wondered if she’d been switched with another baby. The most obvious difference was skin tone. I am much darker-skinned than my daughter, and, although I am first-generation Indian-American, I have been mistaken for Afro-Caribbean, Mexican, and mixed race. My daughter Illyria (“Illy” for short) has the same fair-gold skin tone as her Italian-American father and eyes that turned from purplish-grey to hazel within her first six months.
At every family get-together after she was born, we all tried to pinpoint who she looks like, everyone voicing different opinions: she looks like me, she looks like Steven’s mother, she looks like my mother, she looks like Steven’s niece, or she looks like the girl on the cover of a Shonen Knife CD. Then, when she expressed a different mood and her face changed, whoever had spoken took back his or her opinion, uncertain again. Although I was born in India, I grew up in Palo Alto, California, before there were many Indians around and before interracial marriages became common. When I was a child, my parents enrolled me in an Indian Sunday school where I took classes in Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance), Tamil (their native language), and Balavihar (Hinduism). I remember one little girl with very fair skin who came to Balavihar for a few months. She never said a word. All the other kids, including me, whispered about her on the first day. Nobody was unfriendly, but we were all perplexed. I asked my mother who she was, and it turned out that she was biracial—half-Indian. This news startled me because, as a child, I had incorrectly assumed that all Indians had darker skin like mine. I had equated being Indian with a specific appearance.
But my memory of this experience quickly faded and it would be years before I fully realized the immense visual diversity of Indians. As a 7th-grader in the early 1990s, I hated going to the Indian Sunday school, particularly Indian classical dance, which requires females to move and emote in highly dramatic ways. Being bookish and reserved as a child, the class was painful for me, made worse by my sense that the teacher picked on me for being too Americanized, or ‘blasé’ as my father called it. Although Tamil was my first language, we all spoke English at home and it was a struggle for me to see how it was relevant to my daily life to learn more advanced Tamil. Hinduism appealed to me, but my father had been raised both Catholic and Hindu and taken me to a Unitarian Universalist church; by middle school, I had concluded there was no definitive answer to spiritual questions. I did not tie being Indian to being Hindu or to any specific cultural practice. By the time I was a teenager, I’d come to see all of the Sunday classes on culture as obstacles both to fitting in with my peers and developing my own individual taste, which at the time consisted of listening to punk and modern rock, wearing all black clothing and gigantic silver jewelry, and reading Anais Nin and Baudelaire. How sophisticated could you be if half your Sundays were taken up with a culture that nobody except kids who dressed or acted like hippies saw as cool? Since everyone around me noticed I was Indian anyway because of what I looked like, it struck me as far more important to develop chosen interests and ways of expressing myself over those I’d inherited. My parents were horrified when I said I wanted to quit. I found excuses not to go and faked colds until it became clear that it was a waste of money to send me. I felt guilty, of course. They wore crestfallen expressions.
“I don’t know why you don’t care about knowing where you come from,” my father said after he gave up fighting me. I thought I knew enough. I took being Indian-American for granted, but I also readjusted my perception of my cultural background over the ensuing years. Because of my skin color and facial features, many people over the course of my thirty-six years have asked me, within a few hours, “Where are you from?” I also often heard, “I went to India once, and I loved the food!” or “Someone I know went to India, and he couldn’t take how crowded and dirty it was,” or “Isn’t Slumdog Millionaire the best movie?!” India is more a collection of nation states roughly divided into North and South, with significantly different cultural traditions, foods, and languages, and South Indians in America have always been kind to me, recognizing our shared cultural background. Like being black, I didn’t think being Indian was something mutable. When I was in my twenties, my father told me that I was much more American than Indian, but I scoffed. I had internalized other people’s perceptions by then and I certainly didn’t feel “American.” My differences were the first thing anyone ever noticed about me. If I was perceived as Indian by everyone around me except my family, how could I be more American than Indian? While I was pregnant with our daughter, my husband Steven, who has read more novels by Indian authors than I probably ever will, insisted that my parents speak to her in Tamil sometimes so that she could start to learn both languages. I shrugged. How important could it be for her to learn Tamil? My family spoke English at home and if we went to India, most Indians could speak to us in English anyway.
My parents hadn’t even given me a name common to Tamilians—they specifically gave me a name that I could use no matter where I traveled. Steven and I are both writers and so we decided on a literary first name together—Illyria, the setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. When Steven asked me whether I wanted to give her an Indian middle name, I couldn’t think of one that had any special meaning to me, so we chose another literary middle name, Kinnell, after the great American poet Galway Kinnell. But I read that babies in utero can develop a taste for particular foods, so I ate samosas, curries, green chilli uttha-pam, and hot sauces in the hopes that the baby would like Indian food. That was the only nod I gave to my ethnic background. When I played peek-a-boo with my daughter, or sang to her, or took her around the park in her stroller, all I focused on was how beautiful I thought she was with her chipmunk cheeks, her curious, solemn eyes, and her jovial two-teeth smile. But as strangers questioned my motherhood due to her skin color, I started to chafe against the implication that my daughter wasn’t Indian-American, wasn’t like me. To me, she was both Indian and Italian, not neither. That’s when I started reading more contemporary Indian authors. I wrote about being Indian-American more than I wrote about anything else. I started to regret not giving her an Indian middle name, something that would tie her to India for the rest of her life, the way I believed I was tied by my physical appearance, my more expected skin tone. Finally, I asked my parents, “Can we do a feeding ceremony?” An Annaprasana is a Hindu ceremony performed at a temple, during which a baby is supposed to get solid food for the first time. I asked them because they lived nearby and I would have no idea how to arrange such a ceremony. Initially my father was reluctant.
“Why? It doesn’t really have any meaning to you,” he said and to some extent, he was right. While religion fascinates me, I have been an agnostic ever since I learned what the term meant. For some reason, however, it seemed terribly important to me that Illy have an Annaprasana, God or not, and I was disappointed that after all our disagreements, now that I was interested, my father wasn’t. But in a few days, my parents did get excited. On a rainy day in early January, we drove in separate cars to the Livermore temple, which looks to me like a giant wedding cake. My mother had packed a giant bowl of pongal (a sweet rice dish), fruits, flowers, and betel leaves. Steven and I wore traditional Indian clothing. “Do I look like a poser?” he asked, both excited and concerned. I assured him he looked good. I dressed six-month-old Illy in a bright-red silk dress with gold edging. Inside the temple, I made awkward small talk with Kannan, the priest, who spoke in a kind of lazy English. Besides my husband and daughter, there were no other fair-skinned people in the temple, but everyone standing in the lines to worship at various altars smiled at us. During the ceremony, Kannan mumbled fast directions in Tamil, forgetting that Steven wouldn’t be able to understand him.
My father and I quickly translated that Steven needed to scatter the red rose petals and throw rice or hold the bowl, moving with his hands around the sandalwood incense. We placed Red Delicious apples and bananas on betel leaves, scrambling to peel the labels from the skin of the fruits, as the priest hurried on to the next part of the ceremony. When my father finally offered Illy the pongal, she squished her pink lips together, grumbling “Mmmmmm” to signal refusal. Finally, my father snuck a fingerful of food into her mouth, and once she tasted the sweetness of the jaggery (concentrated date sugar), she nearly inhaled the stuff, taking multiple spoonfuls from each of us. The last part of the Annaprasana is an optional game in which you set four objects in front of the baby within her reach: jewelry, dirt, a pen, and book. Whatever she chooses is supposed to symbolize what her path in life will be. Although none of us, except sometimes me, is superstitious, we decided to play the game.
At home, we’re always reading and Illy’s obsessed with grabbing the books and trying to chew the corners, so we all assumed she would choose books. All five of us let out a collective roar when she tentatively reached a chubby hand toward the gold bangle and picked it up. Wealth, something neither her father nor I have focused on. “So what did I choose at my ceremony?” I asked my mother after, when we were gathered at my parents’ house eating and drinking wine. I was sure it would be a pen. “Oh, you didn’t have a ceremony,” my mother said. “I didn’t have one?” I am baffled. I was born in India to two Hindu parents. Mom explained, “My parents assumed we wouldn’t want to do one because your Dad was raised a Christian. They didn’t tell us to do it and so we never did.” My parents had married outside their castes and religions and I grew up not with a single unified culture, but one that borrowed from a variety of traditions, the ones my parents chose to follow. The postmodern nature of this upbringing had never occurred to me before, but when my mother told me why they hadn’t bothered with the ceremony for me, an odd realization came over me. My own and Illy’s skin colors are utterly irrelevant to our identities. In that moment, I realized that what my father said was true: I am American. Maybe that seems obvious, but it was only when I realized that Illy could actually choose not to be Indian, that I understood in a visceral way how my parents must have felt thirty years ago.
As immigrants in America, they had tried to convince me that it was important to go to classes and socialize with other Indian-Americans and make an active choice to hold onto the identity I inherited—the one that, based on my appearance, other people would assume I possessed. I didn’t make that choice because I never realized that the ethnic aspect of my identity could disappear. I let go of my cultural background not intentionally, but because I assumed it would always be there—like my skin color, it would never vanish. Now, as a mother, I see I was wrong. How very American it is to watch the identity you inherited— an identity that might have been fixed in another country—disappear into a challenging sea of choices about what traditions are worth holding onto and what may be released as inessential. I resolved to take Illy to those Indian classes as long as she lets me in order to give her more choices in building her identity. If she one day decides, in a fit of adolescent rebellion, that they are not for her, even though it will probably bother me, I doubt I will have any new grand arguments to convince her otherwise. Instead, much as she chose the gold bangle, eventually she will have to forge her own cultural identity from the gorgeous chaos of her own intended and accidental experiences.
Author’s Note: Writing about identity feels scary to me. There are so many questions I continue to have about race, culture, and motherhood (not to mention the potential to inadvertently offend readers) that it is very difficult to commit to an opinion or even description. The language never seems right—”half-Indian?” “Indian?” “Indian-Italian-American?” Does assimilation into one culture mean your child is foreclosed from another culture? Does cherry-picking and choosing elements you like for your child mean you are committing to nothing, or is it a tacit decision to choose the culture which allows you to make it all up? Categories that seemed somewhat sensitive but straightforward when I was single became confusing once our daughter was born. Writing about the aspects of life I find the most uncomfortable is the only way I have of uncovering truths I didn’t even know were contested, surprising myself and readers, too, I hope.
Anita Felicelli’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Babble, Blackbird, India Currents, The Rumpus, and many other places. Her first novel Sparks Off You was a 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year (Young Adult) finalist. Anita lives in Mountain View with her husband, daughter, and two rambunctious corgis.
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